Wholly Poli

Wholly Poli

Vaudeville theater magnate Sylvester Z. Poli had, by the time of his official retirement in 1928, opened over 20 theaters from Worcester, MA, to Washington, DC. But his first was the Wonderland Theatre, opened in 1893 on Church Street. If you’ve read yesterday’s story, you know that his success in New Haven had to do with the broad appeal of the acts he put on stage. It also had to do with his ability to sign those acts relatively cheaply. He got many of them during their downtime between higher-paying engagements in New York City and Boston, with a playbook that included dangling carrots. Reluctant signees might be told, “You play Poli now and when he gets a big theater he pays you a big salary.” That theater, which would come to be called Poli’s Palace, wouldn’t be finished until 1905.

Among the entertainers who wrinkled their nose at Poli’s prevarications was George M. Cohan, who went on to become one of the great Tin Pan Alley songwriters (“Give My Regards To Broadway” and the World War I standard “Over There”). At the time, he was a teenager in a family singing group, The Four Cohans, attempting to negotiate a higher fee for their return engagement at the Wonderland, which coincided with Jerry and Helen Cohan’s wedding anniversary. Poli countered that, because of the prior engagement, The Four Cohans’ act was already familiar to New Haven audiences—so the fee should remain familiar, too.

The night of the show, according to a profile of Poli in Marquee Magazine, the Cohans were interrupted mid-song by the house lights coming up. Ushers then proceeded down the aisles, bearing an elaborate silver serving set, and presented it piece by piece to the stunned elder Cohans on the stage. Later, The Four Cohans were thrown a reception, where George had a chance to ask Poli why he had refused their fee increase while spending the equivalent and more on gifts and champagne. “George,” Poli reportedly said, “the salary was business; the gift is friendship.”

The give and take of Poli’s friendships with his entertainers had its roots in his days as a dime museum proprietor with a sideshow stage, where there would have been little presumption of importance by either talent or management. By the time construction began on Poli’s Palace, however, he had placed his name on theaters in Bridgeport, Waterbury, Hartford and Worcester, providing himself and his acts with a miniature circuit.

Word of Poli’s curtain-raising feats was spreading fast enough to attract the attention of a villain: the Vaudeville Manager’s Association. The VMA was in essence a formal agreement among theater managers in the northeast, enacted at a meeting in Boston in 1900, to not compete for audiences or acts. At the center of its cartel-like operation was the United Booking Office, from which all the member theaters got their entertainers, and through which all the entertainers—or their agents—negotiated their contracts.

Determined to bring Poli into the fold were Benjamin Franklin Keith and Edward Franklin Albee, the VMA bosses whose partnership had already made them the dominant vaudeville theater managers in Boston and New York. Entertainers performed in those cities under constant threat of blacklist if they complained about the percentages taken out of their salaries, the weekly critiques of their material or the poorly scheduled zig zags and lengthy gaps between engagements. Meanwhile, those entertainers were sauntering into Poli’s office from the eastbound or westbound train, getting as much or as little extra work as they needed from a manager whose notions of entertainment value and good taste were serious but negotiable.

What became known as the “vaudeville war” between Keith and Poli began in Worcester, where Keith had already expanded. In 1904, Poli leaped to buy a property there that fire had damaged only days before, and fiercely began renovating. He encountered obstacles almost immediately. A bill before the Worcester board of aldermen to run a street through his site suddenly appeared, as did a suspect 5-year lease agreement from a tenant who’d been told to vacate so Poli could convert his shop into a lobby. The bill was narrowly defeated, and Poli was able to sidestep his tenant by moving the lobby. According to the Marquee piece, “Poli’s Theatre, with cherub bedecked horseshoe balconies, rose so quickly on the site that jokesters claimed that construction had started before the embers had grown cold.”

The war spread to other cities. Signs appeared in Poli strongholds announcing the coming of a new Keith theater. Poli then began pursuing leases for sites and theaters in Keith and Albee strongholds like Boston, Providence and Jersey City. Keith then began calling banks in his strongholds to ensure Poli would be unable to secure credit there. Variety and other outlets covered their shenanigans, providing Poli and Keith with a platform for calling each other “unscrupulous,” “dishonorable” and “unoriginal.” Variety ran a cartoon featuring the two men at a game of chess with theaters as pieces.

Poli eventually relented and officially joined, but he was then confronted at a New York restaurant by an actor who had been triumphantly shown Poli’s freshly endorsed membership check by one of Keith’s assistants. As reported in Poli’s obituary in Variety years later, the actor indignantly told Poli he would no longer be working for him (and perhaps snatched a pork chop from Poli’s plate) because “he did not want the Keith office to know he would work for so little.” Poli first denied that he had made out such a check, then put a stop payment on it, after which he held out for several more years. Poli’s eventual membership in the VMA cost him his ability to finesse the acts for his stage. It did however secure his effective ownership of audiences in Connecticut and several nearby cities.

Endearingly, he balanced this ownership with a strong measure of civic responsibility, explaining his growth strategy this way: “If a city has patronized you, stay there and reinvest in that city. In most of the cities where I have theaters, I went back and rebuilt three times.” In 1916, Poli’s Palace Theatre in New Haven was just over 10 years old when Poli had it razed—20-foot mirrors, oil-painted ceilings and all—so he could double its size. Several years prior to that, a fire had taken the Wonderland, which had since been rechristened as Poli’s Bijou Theatre. There are a number of fires throughout the history of Poli’s empire-building, but Poli seemed to view them more as opportunities than disasters, rebuilding in the same spots but this time with a fountain and a crystal staircase. He had also made his foray into what is now considered the theater district, purchasing the Hyperion Theatre (located behind what is now the Union League Cafe) when the Shubert brothers moved their operation to its familiar place on College Street.

Poli’s reinvestment in New Haven extended beyond his theaters. His name appears on the list of members behind the New Haven Civic Improvement Committee report of 1907—alone among Anglo-American names like Townshend and Stokes. He had risen to that distinction, a perhaps token immigrant civic leader among Yankee elites, through memberships in Irish and Italian societies like the Knights of Columbus, the Knights of St. Patrick and the Sons of Italy; philanthropic efforts, particularly during the Great War; and conscientious self-advertisement as a manager of a clean, respectable business. In 1910, he and his wife Rosa’s 25th anniversary party was an occasion worthy of report by the New Haven Evening Register—not just for the small orchestra and hundreds of Japanese lanterns on the grounds of their Howe Street estate but also for the guest list, which included New Haven mayor Frank Rice and many first-generation American business owners but no Townshends or Stokeses.

The irony of Poli’s devotion to reinvestment in New Haven is that New Haven’s devotion to urban renewal in the 1950s and ’60s removed any trace of his investments. Beginning in 1958, 21 years after his death, the buildings that housed Poli’s three downtown theaters were demolished, though a College Street building that once contained the latter-day lobby of the old Hyperion was ultimately converted for apartments. The grounds of his estate on Howe Street first became a public park serving the Oak Street neighborhood, then a part of the frontage road for the planned Oak Street Connector. His name does remain inscribed on a marble mausoleum in St. Lawrence Cemetery, just over the West Haven border. He had initially erected it for his son Edward, whose untimely death in his 20s dashed Poli’s hopes that his theaters would continue to be rebuilt after he was himself gone.

Written by David Zukowski. Image features Sylvester Z. Poli. This story was originally published on June 21, 2019.

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